Born in Anhui province, China, Chih-I was early on attracted to monasteries in Nanjing, the
capital of the South. But later he spends most of his time in the coastal province of Zhejiang.
He is the founder
of the Chinese Tian-tai school of Buddhism in Mount Tian-tai, where he ordained over 4000 priests.
Hui Si (515-576CE), was from the North, where the Buddhism of the time was more concerned with faith and discipline. Chih-I
himself was born from Southern gentry, however, where the intellectual nature of Buddhism had more popularity. This accounts
for Chih-Is proposition that both faith and the intellectual were important for the Buddhist. Just as a bird with only one
wing cannot fly, the Buddhist lacking in either faith or intellect cannot properly be on the path of liberation.
was not excessively prolific, but his disciple Guan Ding (561-632CE) collected and preserved most of his teachings, written
He organized all existing Theravada and Mahayana sutras into a five-part scheme, comprising the various
levels of teaching revealed by the Buddha and culminating in the Lotus Sutra, the supreme synthesis of Buddhist doctrine.
T'ian T'ai thus became proverbially broad, able to absorb and give rise to other movements within Buddhism. It also
took up a principle of threefold truth derived from Nagarjuna: (1) all things are void and without essential reality; (2)
all things have a provisional reality; (3) all things are both absolutely unreal and provisionally real at once. The transient
world of phenomena is thus seen as one with the unchanging, undifferentiated ground of existence. This doctrine was elaborated
in a complex cosmology of 3,000 interpenetrating realms of existence.
Chih-I Major Writings
Fa hua xuan yi (Interpretation of the Lotus Sutra)
Miao fa lian hua jing xuan yi (Profound Meaning of the Lotus Sutra)
Miao fa lian hua jing wen zhu (Commentary on Lotus Sutra, or Words or Phrases of the Lotus Sutra) Based on Chih-I
lectures at Guang Ze Monastery in 587CE)
Mo he zhi guan (Great Concentration and Insight)
Classification of Doctrinal Teachings and Meditative Practices
Chih-I classified doctrinal teachings and meditative practices into three categories:
1) sudden, which points directly
to the Buddha nature
2) gradual, which uses expedient means
3) and variable, which combines the other two in various
The "Complete Method" contained all these methods, Chih-I declared in his two major works, The Meaning
of the Lotus Sutra (Fa-hua hsan-i) and Great Concentration and Insight (Mo-ho Chi-Kuan) which explain meditational practices.
What gives Chih-I thoughts nuance and complexity is the declaration that all teaching is partially gradual - as no words adequately
can express the Buddha nature; and all teaching is partially sudden - as it derives from fully enlightened mind. The whole
of the cosmos is inherent in a moment of thought and is grasped by the enlightened mind as 'both and neither' empty and solid.
Chih I wrote the most comprehensive meditation manual to come from China. Again he drew separations between gradual,
sudden and various other methods.
Sudden, in connection with practice, implied that the method is immediately focusing
on the Buddha nature as its object from the moment when Bodhicitta arises.
Gradual, in connection with practice,
means that one uses suitable objects like breathing, Nien-Fo (repetition of the Buddha Amithaba's name), or contemplation
of a sutra. But these differences are relative. The Buddha nature is present in all mental moments; and so, all meditation
methods are in their own way sudden.
Chih I insisted that Buddha Nature transcends the subject/object relation and
can never be an object. This doctrine became the ultimate, 'state of the art' in Buddhist teachings and was accepted by all
East Asian schools. Chih I's writings on meditation especially came to form the model out of which Chan developed. Later,
in the eleventh century, newer Chan manuals would still repeat large parts of Chih I's Great Concentration and Insight.
Chih I compared Buddhism to a course in medicine. A less trained person might not see the need for certain medicines or
techniques, but a competent doctor would recognize the subtle differences between various illnesses and would know the different
methods of treatment.
Eventually the strength of Tien Tai, which was the complexity of its teaching and practice,
became its weakness, as it required its followers to master all the areas of doctrine and practice. This may have been just
be one of the reasons why so many monks left Tien Tai to follow the Chan School during the seventh century. The central formula
of Tien Tai is the Threefold Truth. The goal is to transcend the traditional two-fold truth of Mahayana - Yu and Wu (absolute/relative
and existence/non-existence). The Tien Tai doctrine is centered around this principle of 'Perfect Harmonious Truth':
1. All dharmas are empty as they have no self-nature.
2. All dharmas have only temporary existence.
3. Being both empty and temporary is the nature of dharmas.
The means of grasping this nature can be understood
in several ways:
a. One can follow the temporary and reach the insight of Emptiness (Ku). Emptiness discovered
in the relative world is seen to be identical to the temporary.
b. One can embrace Emptiness and reach the temporary
(Ke). There is a connection between the insight of enlightenment and an actual function in the temporary world (Bodhisattvas).
c. This is the Middle Way (Chu), the ideal balance between insight and actual realization.
is threefold and the Trinity is one. In the end, Real Truth, Worldly Truth, and the Middle Way are all expressions of one
single integrated reality.
At this point, it is interesting to consider a quote from The Sixth Patriarch's, Tan
Ching: "The Buddha Nature and the Self Nature mean the same thing, and they are primarily by nature pure, empty, and
unconscious. This pure, unknown unconscious moves, and Prajna is awakened; and with the awakening of Prajna there rises a
world of dualities."
All possible levels of existence are clearly formulated in Tien Tai
are ten main levels:
1. Beings in hell-like conditions.
2. Animal conditions.
3. Hungry ghosts -
4. Human conditions.
5. Fighting demons - aggressive conditions.
6. Heavenly beings
- divine conditions.
7. Direct disciples of the Buddha - Sravaka-like conditions.
8. Single Buddhas - Pratyeka-like
Each of these ten levels share characteristics with one another
that they form 100 levels. There are also ten 'suchnesses':
1. Suchlike character.
2. Suchlike nature.
3. Suchlike content.
4. Suchlike power.
5. Suchlike activity.
6. Suchlike reason.
7. Suchlike conditions.
8. Suchlike effects.
9. Suchlike repentance.
10. Suchlike absolute identity of beginning and end.
of the 100 levels share these suchnesses to form 1000 levels. Each of these 1000 levels has three aspects: Living beings;
Space; and the Skandhas, thereby forming a total of 3000 levels. Each of the 3000 levels is implicit in each single moment,
because all levels are part of each other.